This is another classic I reread while drafting my current novel. It’s famous not only for being the last in the series of books that began with Anne of Green Gables, it’s also famous for being one of Canada’s best-known World War One novels. I’ve seen it described as the only novel about WWI from the perspective of a Canadian woman, and while I don’t know if that’s strictly true, it certainly deserves attention for illuminating that aspect of our experience from a contemporary perspective.
A contemporary perspective is always different from the perspective of a historical novelist. No matter how much I researched the home front during the first world war, I would never be able to capture that experience in the same way as L.M. Montgomery, who lived through it. But there’s also a kind of uncritical sentimentality in her attitude to the war — partly because she was so close to those events, and partly, I guess, because of who she was and the type of book she was writing — that a modern novelist probably couldn’t get away with. I read and loved this book as a teenager, and have reread it many times, but not for several years. It was strange to return to it now, after many years of teaching my history students about World War One as one of the most misguided and wasteful military escapades in recent history, to immerse myself again in the world of this book where that war is portrayed as painful and devastating, but absolutely necessary and worthy of the sacrifices made. Rilla Blythe and her family suffer terribly as a result of the war, but not once do they question whether it’s worthwhile or whether their boys have gone off to fight for a good cause. In this, I think Montgomery is writing accurately about the war as most Canadians probably saw it at the time — the questions a modern novelist might bring to it are the ones that we impose later, with the benefit of hindsight.
If you’re willing to enter into this world and this mindset, and don’t mind some unabashed sentimentality, this is a great novel, rich in the detail of one young woman’s life in a small village at a pivotal moment in history. The novel follows Rilla Blythe (daughter of Anne and Gilbert) from her fifteenth birthday on the eve of the declaration of war, till the boys come home more than four years later. Along the way she struggles with loss, loneliness, responsibility and maturity.
Re-reading this novel, I found myself crying at all the same places I cried years ago — and I cried buckets over Jem’s dog waiting at the train station for him for four years. Honestly, no matter how you feel about sentimental novels for girls, or about World War One, or even about dogs, if Little Dog Monday doesn’t wring a tear from you, you really do have a heart of stone. Despite the hard questions that the book and its characters never address, this is not only a priceless piece of history, but a great story that stands up well to re-reading.